2024-03-22

Hellenistic Era Bible Hypothesis continued

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by Neil Godfrey

I was glad to move on from the discussion of circularity underlying the conventional dating of the biblical texts when I posted the following to point out other relevant questions. I have only slightly edited and added here to what I posted to the earlywritings forum on 20th Feb. (All posts in this series are archived at Dating Biblical Texts.)

The following copy of my forum post is only a list of 5 headers that introduce questions that need to be discussed more fully in order to fruitfully explore the Hellenistic era provenance for the Hebrew Bible. Nothing more, only brief summary notes introducing the need for further thought.

—o0o—

There is more to the Hellenistic provenance thesis than the simple fact of the circularity of the methods of dating the OT books by the past conventional scholarship — -[the circularity is something that] so far not even [my critic] has denied. . . .

Archaeology reveals . . .

I recently added quotes from scholars setting out the findings of archaeology relevant to the story of Joshua’s invasion of Canaan in a discussion post here.

1. The archaeological evidence of pre-Hellenistic Judea-Samaria has demonstrated that major moments of biblical history are fictions. The “invasion” of Canaan by an “Israelite” ethnic group never happened. The most that can be said about the “Kingdom” of David and Solomon is that it was little more than a village incapable of extending dominance over any area of note. (Jamieson-Drake saw evidence of development from a “lower-order society” to a “chiefdom” in Jerusalem, which falls far from the level of “a state”.)

Why write fiction?

2. The question must arise, then, why such stories were told? Were the stories derived from historical memories? Archaeology has suggested that is unlikely. A fundamental and inescapable fact of any literature is that it must reflect the ideas and beliefs and understandings that are part of its own cultural matrix. One specific feature of the narrative of David is that it shares on the one hand anachronisms that belong to the Persian kingdom and on the other hand Judean territorial ambitions of the Hellenistic era. One might therefore wonder if the stories were told to express hopes for imminent greatness, or at least as an attempt to identify with other great powers, whether of the past and/or present.

But what kind of fiction?

3. The literary structure and style of the Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings), as other scholars (not those arguing for a Hellenistic origin, by the way) have shown, is comparable to the Histories of Herodotus. The closest genre to the Primary History is found in the Greek world. Another comparable genre is the autobiographical narrative. Some scholars have attempted to explain this observation by speculating that Greek works were well known to the subjects of the Persian empire or that even the biblical books were known to the Greeks and influenced the Greeks. One needs to look for the explanation that raises the fewest difficulties or questions.

Nothing uniform — why?

4. There are widely variant styles among the biblical books. One can explain this fact by positing a long period of evolution and various cultural influences over centuries. One can also explain the same fact by positing contemporary regional differences. As one scholar noted, imagine if all we had about Socrates were the writings of Plato and Xenophon. Would we have to assume that there was a vast time gap between the two accounts since they are so different in both content and style?

What kind of society?

I addressed this question in more detail in my post of little over a week ago: The Problem with an Early Date for the Hebrew Bible

5. One ought also to look at the kind of socio-cultural-economic society that would be required to produce the biblical literature. Here again the archaeological evidence can be interpreted in favour of the Hellenistic period. But this is a much larger topic of its own. The argument emerges from other hypotheses.

The scholars I have had in mind while setting out the above five points, with one exception, have not been advocates of the Hellenistic origin of the biblical literature. The archaeological evidence that discounts the historicity of “biblical history”, the comparisons with Greek literature and Persian royal ideologies, — all of these are found in works of scholars who never entertained a Hellenistic time setting, as far as I am aware. Philip Davies himself (with whom I began in the opening post) always argued for the Persian era for the Primary History and Prophets. But there are also problems with a Persian era setting that disappear if we move the compositions of the books to the third century.


2024-03-20

Most Ways of Dating the Old Testament Older than 300 BCE are Flawed

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues a series I began with The Hebrew Bible - Composed only 300 years before Christ

In my opening post setting out the initial grounds for thinking that the biblical literature was no older than 300 BCE I noted with only minimal explanation that the current mainstream view of the far greater antiquity of the Bible was logically invalid — it was grounded in circular reasoning. I mentioned that simple fact only as an introductory explanation for why a new approach to dating the biblical texts was warranted. I wrongly assumed that there would be little need for a fuller discussion to justify the claim of circularity. But one of the forum members picked it up and challenged it. So I found myself setting out a more detailed justification for the claim that the primary mainstream way of dating the Bible’s books was indeed logically invalid. I began by quoting at length from P. R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel.

Before I post my forum reply here I want to add another scholar’s observations about serious flaws in much of conventional biblical scholarship. His words sum up a point I have made often over the years on this blog. There is too often precious little in common between the fundamental methods of biblical historians and historians of “non-biblical” inquiries:

Modern scholarly histories of Israel are written for two main purposes: in order to understand the place of Israel within the actual history of the ancient Near East or in order to understand better the Hebrew Bible. The second reason has predominated, and it is no accident that many authors of the standard histories of Israel have also written biblical commentaries. Large-scale histories of Israel are not typically written by individuals whose primary training is in general historical method or in ancient Near Eastern history. It should not be surprising, then, that biblical histories show so little agreement with the canons of modern historiography, especially concerning the use of evidence, specifically the evaluation of source material before using it for reconstructing the past. (Brettler, pp 140f – my bolded highlighting in all quotations)

Amen to that. The same applies to New Testament studies, both with respect to the gospels and to the epistles. Approach those sources by the same “canons of modern historiography” and one soon finds oneself with very little in common with the reconstructions of most historians of Christian origins.

Here is the initial reply that I posted to justify my point that the ways of dating biblical texts are logically invalid. I have added subheadings in underlined italics to my original post to enable quick scanning.

–o0o–

Here is what Davies wrote in 1992, and I think it deserves a response:

So far, historical research by biblical scholars has taken a different and circular route, whose stages can be represented more or less as follows:

Assume the authors were doing their best to write a real history

1. The biblical writers, when writing about the past, were obviously informed about it and often concerned to report it accurately to their readers. A concern with the truth of the past can be assumed. Therefore, where the literary history is plausible, or where it encounters no insuperable objections, it should be accorded the status of historical fact. The argument is occasionally expressed that the readers of these stories would be sufficiently knowledgeable (by tradition?) of their past to discourage wholesale invention.

Assume a story set in a particular past originated in that particular past

2. Much of the literature is itself assigned to quite specific settings within that story (e.g. the prophetic books, dated to the reigns of kings of Israel and Judah). If the biblical literature is generally correct in its historical portrait, then these datings may also be relied upon.

If we can link some details in a story to a historical time created by the story,
then we can use that story setting to interpret the story

3. Even where the various parts of the biblical literature do not date themselves within the history of its ʻIsraelʼ we are given a precise enough account in general to enable plausible connections [to] be made, such as Deuteronomy with the time of Josiah, or (as formerly) the Yahwist with the time of David or Solomon, Psalms with a Jerusalem cult. Thus, where a plausible context in the literary history can be found for a biblical writing, that setting may be posited, and as a result there will be mutual confirmation, by the literature of the setting, and by the setting of the literature. For example, the Yahwistʼs setting in the court of Solomon tells us about the character of that monarchy and the character of that monarchy explains the writing of this story.

I’ll interject here to add to what I originally wrote.  Contrast the assumption of a historian of ancient times (that we must acknowledge the readiness of ancient writers to make things up) with that of the biblical historians (that we must assume they had reliable sources).

Where did [ancient historians] find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit – irrespective of possible reliability – we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. 

The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. . . (Finley, p. 9)

If it is clear that an editor lived in more recent times it is assumed that his knowledge of past events was derived from sources originating at the time of those early events

4. Where the writer (ʻredactorʼ) of the biblical literature is recognized as having been removed in time from the events he describes or persons whose words he reports (e.g. when an account of the history of ʻIsraelʼ stretches over a long period of time), he must be presumed to rely on sources or traditions close to the events. Hence even when the literary source is late, its contents will nearly always have their point of origin in the time of which they speak. The likelihood of a writer inventing something should generally be discounted in favour of a tradition, since traditions allow us a vague connection with ʻhistoryʼ (which does not have to be exact) and can themselves be accorded some value as historical statements of the ʻfaithʼ of ʻIsraelʼ (and this will serve the theologian almost as well as history).

Each of these assertions can be encountered, in one form or another in the secondary literature. But it is the underlying logic which requires attention rather than these (dubious) assertions themselves. That logic is circular. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself. Historical criticism (so called) of the inferred sources and traditions seeks to locate these in that literary-cum-historical construct. The placement of sources and traditions in this way is then used to embellish the literary account itself. This circular process places the composition of the literature within the period of which the literature itself speaks. This is precisely how the period to which the biblical literature refers becomes also the time of composition, the ʻbiblical periodʼ, and the biblical literature, taken as a whole, becomes a contemporary witness to its own construct, reinforcing the initial assumption of a real historical matrix and giving impetus to an entire pseudo-scholarly exercise in fitting the literature into a sequence of contexts which it has itself furnished! If either the historicity of the biblical construct or the actual date of composition of its literature were verified independently of each other, the circle could be broken. But since the methodological need for this procedure is overlooked, the circularity has continued to characterize an entire discipline—and render it invalid. The panoply of historical-critical tools and methods used by biblical scholars relies for the most part on this basic circularity. (Davies, pp. 35-37)

Some cynicism was expressed in response so I gave specific examples to illustrate how even notable names like Julius Wellhaussen and William Dever do exactly what Davies described — use the setting in the  story’s narrative to date the narrative, thus turning a narrative setting into a historical one to explain the narrative! (You are forgiven for feeling dizzyingly confused.)

Here is what Julius Wellhausen wrote in Prolegomena:I.II.2

The Jehovistic Book of the Covenant lies indeed at the foundation of Deuteronomy, but in one point they differ materially, and that precisely the one which concerns us here. As there, so here also, the legislation properly so called begins (Deut. xii.) with an ordinance relating to the service of the altar; but now we have Moses addressing the Israelites in the following terms: “When ye come into the land of Canaan, ye shall utterly destroy all the places of worship which ye find there, and ye shall not worship Jehovah your God after the manner in which the heathen serve theirs. Nay, but only unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes for His habitation shall ye seek, and thither shall ye bring your offerings and gifts, and there shall ye eat before Him and rejoice. Here at this day we do every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes, but when ye have found fixed abodes, and rest from your enemies round about, then shall the place which Jehovah shall choose for His habitation in one of your tribes be the one place to which ye shall bring your offerings and gifts. Take heed that ye offer not in every place that ye see; ye may not eat your holy gifts in every town, but only in the place which Jehovah shall choose.”

The Law is never weary of again and again repeating its injunction of local unity of worship. In doing so, it is in conscious opposition to “the things that we do here this day,” and throughout has a polemical and reforming attitude towards existing usage. It is rightly therefore assigned by historical criticism to the period of the attacks made on the Bamoth by the reforming party at Jerusalem. As the Book of the Covenant, and the whole Jehovistic writing in general, reflects the first pre−prophetic period in the history of the cultus, so Deuteronomy is the legal expression of the second period of struggle and transition. The historical order is all the more certain because the literary dependence of Deuteronomy on the Jehovistic laws and narratives can be demonstrated independently, and is an admitted fact. From this the step is easy to the belief that the work whose discovery gave occasion to King Josiah to destroy the local sanctuaries was this very Book of Deuteronomy . . .

In a later response I explained the reasoning behind assigning the Book of Deuteronomy to the period of King Josiah and I will elaborate on that in another (next?) post.

William Dever even appeals to archaeological finds of the presence of pagan objects to “support” the biblical story of Josiah getting rid of pagan objects!

First, Dever reminds us of the importance of archaeology in assessing the historicity of the biblical accounts:

[A]rchaeological data are primary because an external witness is required to lend support to the historicity of the biblical narratives, if possible, and archaeology is, by definition, the only candidate (including, of course, the texts that it may recover). Archaeology is primary because it provides an independent witness in the court of adjudication, and when properly interrogated it is often an unimpeachable witness. (p. 18)

Agreed 100%.

But then compare that noble statement with how he actually uses archaeological data to “confirm” a biblical narrative:

It is the reign of Josiah (648–609) that is best correlated with the archaeological evidence that we now have. His reputation as a reformer, a restorer of tradition, comports especially well with the more favorable situation that we know obtained with the decline of Assyria . . . (p. 611)

Correlation is not a proof. Dever lists in a table what is explicitly proven by archaeology at the time of Josiah:

“Poly-yahwism”; Asherah cult; Yahu names; Philistia attacked (p. 609)

In the same table he lists as “Probable; Evidence Ambiguous”

Josiahʼs attempted reforms; consulted temple scroll; maintained Judah even if vassal; Josiah slain in battle, (p. 609)

So archaeology, according to his own analysis, does not confirm the historicity of the Joshua narrative. Nonetheless, he proceeds to set forth a list of correlations with the biblical account — as if correlations can ever be anything more than correlations. (Compare the correlations with historical data of any historical novel.)

He begins on page 11:

It is the reign of Josiah (648–609) that is best correlated with the archaeological evidence that we now have. . . .

Numerous studies of these intriguing reform measures attributed to Josiah have been published, but few have paid any attention to possible archaeological correlates—that is, to a possible real-life context in the late seventh century. Most scholars have focused on whether the reform was successful, many assuming that the reforms claimed are simply too fantastic to be credible. The fact is, however, that we have good archaeological explanations for most of the targets of Josiahʼs reforms. For instance, we know what high places (bāmôt) are, and we have a number of examples of them, perhaps the most obvious example being the monumental one at Dan.

No-one denies the biblical authors were familiar with the various popular cults of the day. Simply finding evidence of these brings us no closer to finding any support for the historicity behind the narrative of Josiah and the discovery of Deuteronomy.

We have many altars in cult places and private homes, large and small. We even have an example of the altar on the roof in the debris of a building destroyed at Ashkelon in 604.

The sacred poles and pillars are easily explained, even in the Hebrew Bible, as wooden images or live trees used to represent the goddess Asherah symbolically. The tree iconography has now been connected conclusively with the old Canaanite female deity Asherah, whose cult was still widespread in Iron Age Israel, in both nonorthodox and conformist circles (above).

The weavings, or perhaps “garments” or even “curtains,” for Asherah (Hebrew bāttîm) remain a crux. Renderings by the Septuagint, the Targumim, and later Jewish commentaries suggest a corrupt Masoretic Text, but woven garments for deities and tent-like hangings for sacred pavilions are well known in both the ancient and modern Middle East.

The phrase “heavenly hosts” needs no archaeological explanation, since it clearly refers to the divine council well documented at Ugarit and in the Hebrew Bible. The reference to the “horses and chariots of the Sun” recalls examples that we have of terra-cotta horse-and-chariot models from the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. In the Ugaritic texts, Baal is the “Cloud Rider” who flies across the heavens daily as the great storm god, imagery that is even applied to Yahweh in Psalms.

The Topheth in the Kidron Valley (a rubbish dump and place of abomination in any case) is readily explained by the famous sanctuary of Tanit at Carthage, where infant sacrifice was the usual rite, and there the Phoenician god was indeed Molech.

Of the various “pagan” deities condemned—Baal, Asherah, Ashtoreth of Sidon, Kemosh of Moab, and Milkom of Ammon—all are well known, as is their iconography and to some degree their cult practices.

It is not only the description of the specifics of the religious situation in Josiahʼs time that is realistic in the light of the current archaeological data. The general context of cultural and religious pluralism in the seventh century is an amalgam well illustrated by the archaeological data that we have summarized above, beginning already in the eighth century. That context helps to answer the question raised above about whether the Deuteronomistic Historiansʼ original version fits in the actual historical-cultural setting of the seventh century in Judah. It can be shown in many ways that it does but in other ways that it does not, even though the written version could have been almost contemporary (the question of an older oral tradition cannot be resolved).

It is instructive to set the central themes and ideals of the Deuteronomistic program as summarized above alongside a general description of the realities of life in seventh-century Judah as illuminated by the archaeological evidence here. (pp. 612f)

And that’s it. All Dever’s archaeological evidence has managed to do is to tell us that there is no evidence for Josiah’s reforms as per the biblical narrative. No-one has questioned the polytheistic/poly-Yahwist cult prevalent throughout Judah/Samaria/Negev/Syria. The biblical narrative assumes that most of the population did not practice “biblical Yahwism”. The whole point of the narrative is to give some historical context to the book of Deuteronomy.

One may reply that the biblical narrative was exaggerated and the reforms were not so successful after all, but it won’t really do to imagine all sorts of reasons why we still do not have the evidence for the historicity of the narrative. We will always need independent evidence to confirm the narrative. Until we have it we cannot validly work on the assumption that we will one day find the evidence we know “must be there somewhere” to justify our dating of the sources.

Dever’s words above are a classic instance of the very problem Davies was addressing. The archaeological evidence is interpreted through the assumption that there is a historical core in the biblical narrative. Without the biblical narrative there is simply no grounds in any of the evidence cited by Dever that would lead anyone to suspect the event of Josiah’s reforms.

–o0o–

Unfortunately there were no critical responses worth mentioning here. The only responses were summary assertions to the contrary and constant attempts to avoid addressing the problem illustrated by Wellhausen, Dever and countless other unnamed scholars in between. In other words, the only response was to attack by means of blanket assertion and denial, not to actually engage with the specific  arguments presented.

But soon another forum member entered the discussion (the moderator himself, no less!) and then things got “pretty wild”. That’s for another post.

By the way, I titled this “Most Ways”. There are some other methods used to tie some texts to pre-Hellenistic eras and I’d like to address those, too. But the fundamental point of this post even applies to some extent in those cases. The independent evidence introduced usually is deployed to “verify” an invalid construct as per above.


Brettler, Marc Zvi. The Creation of History in Ancient Israel. London: Routledge, 1998.

Davies, Philip R. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.

Dever, William G. Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. SBL Press, 2017.

Finley, M. I. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project, 1999.

Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Blackmask Online, 2002.



2024-03-19

Were Jews in Babylonian Exile Pining for Home in “Israel-Judah” and a Reformed Religion?

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by Neil Godfrey

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.

Thus opens Psalm 137. Does it reflect a realistic situation of captives who had been deported from the kingdom of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in the seventh century BCE?

The conventional narrative for the beginnings of modern Judaism is that the Babylonian captivity enabled deportees from Jerusalem and its surrounds to reflect at leisure upon their past sins and the warnings of the prophets and to resolve to “behave” in future, eliminating all pagan idolatry from their religious practices and be true to Yahweh as Moses had originally commanded them. The literate class among them decided to write about their past history of sin and waywardness and to inculcate the need to be genuine monotheists as per the Ten Commandments and other laws beginning with Abraham.

Wikimedia Commons

But what do we know — for facts — about ancient deportations of populations in that part of the ancient world? Does what we know lend credence to the above narrative? Let’s begin with

  • Oded, Bustenay. Mass Deportations and Deportees in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert, 1979.

Oded’s book is a mass of quotations from ancient documents.

What was the purpose of mass population deportations?

The use of deportation as a punishment, either for breach of treaty or for some other misdeed, was not only an Assyrian practice, but one that was common to all the peoples of the ancient Near East. (p. 43)

The intent was “to weaken national and political centres” . . .

to weaken their national spirit and their link with their homeland. It also reduced the possibility of a national revival.

Oded refers readers to a 1970 article in the Harvard Theological Review by John Holladay citing the evidence that ancient Assyrian kings understood that the policies of kings were understood to be the result of pressure from their population: it was the people who were responsible for their king’s rebellion.

Oded continues:

The exchange of populations and the dispersal of ethnic and national groups in various places was a way of breaking up separate nationalistic entities. (p. 44)

Oded further points out that deportees from Syria and the wider Levant living in Mesopotamia were convenient hostages. Any persons left behind in the land conquered who had close ties with any of the deportees would have to be careful not to take any action that would endanger the lives of their associates now in captivity.

Deportees were the most loyal to their conquerors

Let’s come to the crux. Those who were deported were taken to live among strangers. Those “strangers” did not appreciate having to give up their own lands and living areas to foreigners, the deportees. The deportees who were resettled in their new lands were therefore depending upon their erstwhile enemy power to protect them — from the locals.

These minority groups inclined to be loyal to Assyria, since their right to settle in the country to which they had been deported derived from the king of Assyria, who had them brought there. The indigenous population naturally did not welcome the intrusion and settlement of foreign elements in their cities and villages, by order of the conquering king, particularly as their own fellow-citizens had, in many cases, been deported to make room for the newcomers. They looked upon these newcomers as usurpers, who had taken possession of their compatriots’ property, not by right, but by order of the conquering king. The fields and vineyards which Rabshakeh promised to give the people of Jerusalem in a country like their own land — to which he would deport them if they surrendered were presumably the property of other people who had themselves been deported. The hostility between the deportees and the local population increased, whenever the national sentiment of the local population, and their desire to east off the Assyrian yoke, grew. The deportees did not share the national aspirations of the local population. Liberation from Assyrian rule could only be detrimental to them, since they had been brought to the country and settled there by the king of Assyria. . . .

The Assyrian king then became the protector of these deportees from persecution by the local population . . . (p. 46)

The conquerors were especially protective of those they deported:

The deportees were chosen mainly from among the leaders of the community and from the artisans. . . And they were deported to countries which had been depleted by deportation, of their own elite, so that the new arrivals formed a separate national and professional stratum in the population, foreign to, yet living in the midst of the indigenous inhabitants. This not only had the effect of sharpening the difference between the deportees and the local population, but it also meant that, in all the Assyrian provinces, the part of the population best qualified to serve the imperial Assyrian administration was composed mainly of deportees. . . . This explains the favourable treatment the deportees generally enjoyed, and the great concern shown by the Assyrian rulers for their welfare. (p. 47)

The deportees thus depended for their safety on the king who had captured them, and in such a position, their conqueror king found them useful as a counterweight to his own native population who may not have been happy with him:

The intention behind this policy may have been, inter alia, to provide a counterweight to local urban elements hostile to the king. (p. 48)

The jobs of the deportees

They were conscripted into the army.

Many such conscripts were not assigned as fighters but as service personnel to support the needs of the camps and fortresses of the army.

They were used to settle older cities as well as new and rebuilt city areas.

They were used to populate deserted and barren regions that were strategically important.

They were settled in a way that would

provide and increase reliable sources of food, and to enrich the state treasuries. (p. 67)

They were deployed in building projects, in the royal court as scribes, as singers and musicians, as physicians and diviners, as smiths — ironsmiths, goldsmiths — leatherworkers, ivory workers, carpenters. Those who were literate were used in businesses relating to loans and purchases, and as merchants and traders who could contribute to the wealth of the state.

To sum up

To sum up we can conclude that the socio-economic and legal status of the deportees was not uniform and their conditions were not identical. There were masters and dependants, full freemen and chattel slaves, soldiers and civilians, labouring freemen and labouring dependent persons, townsmen and villagers, free peasants and dependent farmers, free land holders, tenants and glebae adscripti. The rights and duties of the individual deportee were determined by a wide range of circumstances. The position of any particular deportee also depended on his occupation, on the employer, on the function he was singled out to perform, on his personal ability, and on the specific conditions prevailing in the place where he lived. (p. 115)

Now have another look at Psalm 137 and see how naively romantic such a picture is compared with reality. In the light of the above, can we imagine deportees seeking to revive ideas that led to them being conquered in the first place and that would indicate to their captors that they were not fully loyal to them? Can we imagine the captors allowing those they deported to take with them their scrolls and tablets that were records of their cult and chronicles? If priests were to be useful they would serve the Babylonian cult as scribes and as temple and sacrifice support persons, or as literati in the court.


2024-03-17

Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Invalidate a Hellenistic Origin of the Hebrew Books of the Bible?

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by Neil Godfrey

I am posting here on my blog what I had posted in the “Academic Discussion” of the EarlyWritings Biblical Criticism & History Forum and I hope soon to post specific criticisms or responses that were made in that space. I am collating both those criticisms and my own responses as far as I can find them to make them all accessible here. The reason for doing this is that on that forum some of my comments were removed (without notifying me) to other places outside the Academic Discussion area and replies made to them without my being aware of what was going on. To the extent I have tracked those down I will post them here. (I may have more to say about the range of discussion that is permitted on that forum — and enforced by means of ridicule and insult directed at those who dare to question the fundamentals of core biblical studies models and methods.) I will, of course, also be posting other scholarly arguments that have been used to date the books of the Hebrew Bible to the Persian period and earlier.

Here is one of the earlier criticisms. It is from Stephen Goranson:

My reply (originally posted on the earlywritings forum):

Michael Langlois has the scholarly professionalism to acknowledge when others have interpretations that differ from his own, noting what is possible outside his own preferences and where another specialist has disagreed with him.

He writes in relation to 4Q46 (p. 270):

4Q46 would thus be at home in the fifth or fourth centuries BCE; an earlier date is not impossible but lacks clear parallels, whereas a date in the third century is possible but unnecessary.

In relation to 4Q12: (p. 271):

. . . would also be at home in the fifth or fourth centuries BCE, perhaps in the third century should the development of the script be slow. McLean dates 4Q12 to the “middle of the second century” BCE; 64 such a late date is unnecessary.

On 2Q5 (p. 271)

. . . this manuscript could be at home in the fourth or third centuries. McLean dates it to ca. “150 to 75 BCE” 65 which seems unnecessarily late.

On 6Q2 (p. 271)

Overall, 6Q2 may also have been copied around the fourth or third centuries BCE. McLean acknowledges the affinities between 6Q2 and 2Q5 and ascribes them both the same unnecessarily late date between 150 and 75 BCE.

On the 1Q3 fragments (p. 272)

Although a date in the fourth century is possible, 1Q3 is probably more at home in the third century, like 4Q11. McLeanʼs dating between “150 to 75 BCE” 67 is, once again, probably late, while Birnbaumʼs dating “ca. 440 B.C.E.” 68 is too early, flawed by his methodology.

And on the 6Q1 fragments (p. 272)

… may have been copied around the third century BCE. McLean dates 4Q101 “between 225 and 150 BCE,” 69 and 6Q1 and 4Q123 to the “last half of the second century” BCE 70 ; these ranges are possible but too narrow and a bit late.

  • Langlois, Michael. “Dead Sea Scrolls Palaeography and the Samaritan Pentateuch.” In The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by Michaël Langlois, 255–85. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 94. Leuven ; Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2019.

As has been noted elsewhere [in earlier discussions on the Early Writings Forum], Langlois “does not point to any palaeographic feature that positively indicates a 5th or 4th century as opposed to third century BCE date”.

 

 


2024-03-14

The Hebrew Bible – Composed only 300 years before Christ?

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by Neil Godfrey

Below is a revised version of a post I submitted to the earlywritings forum. It is the first in a series setting out the foundational arguments for the Old Testament books being written as late as only 300 years before Christ, no earlier. The case being proposed is that our earliest books of the Bible did not have a heritage traced back to Bronze Age times, not even as far back as the kingdoms of Israel and Judah — nor even the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Judeans who were transported to Mesopotamia by Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BCE. Rather, the proposition advanced here is that they were the creations of a time after Alexander the Great swept across “Asia” and just prior to the Hasmonean and Maccabean eras. The argument to be advanced is that the earliest books of the Bible originated in the Greek era, only a couple or so centuries before the Roman conquest and time of Jesus.

When we apply the fundamentals of historical methods as practised by historians in fields other than biblical studies we quickly see logical flaws at the heart of the conventional understanding that the sources for various biblical books (in particular the stories in Genesis and Exodus) go back as far as the times of David and Solomon.

Multiple sources and circularity

Several times I have engaged in the EarlyWritings Forum on the question of the how the Hebrew Bible came about over long centuries of accumulated writings and editings [i.e. the Documentary Hypothesis] and every time, it seems to me, the argument submitted to prove that the stories came about over long spans of time is the same: the evidence clearly shows us that different stories were combined into one. The classic illustration of this is the Flood story of Genesis. There can be little doubt that two different flood narratives are combined here. Sometimes the account says Noah brought in the animals two by two but in another place it tells us that there were seven of each kind! There are many more indicators to verify the point.

My response has been each time that I have no doubt that different sources were mixed to create the Genesis Flood account, but it does not necessarily follow that those different stories arose and came together over a long time period.

Think of it for a moment: An editor sees before him a story which says that the animals went into the ark two by two. That editor has in mind another story that he has acquired, one that says there were seven of each kind of animal. Now what is that editor likely to do if he wants to create a new single narrative? Would he be likely to keep the two by two account alongside the new one with the sevens? Or should we rather expect that he would delete the two by two references and replace them with what he prefers as the more valid story about the sevens?

What we have is a case of the editor deciding to combine details, even though contradictory, into one new narrative.

To me, that sounds like the editor had two different stories before him and he saw his role as being required to blend the two together, preserving the details of each, to create a single new authoritative story.

If that was the case, there is no reason at all to suppose that the Flood story as we have it is evidence of composition involving the accumulation of different sources over a long time span. It is no less reasonable to think that two interest groups created their own account and an editor was tasked with the job of making them one so that there was one narrative that all could respect as reflecting their own views. Such a project is conceivable as taking place from start to finish within months or even weeks, not necessarily centuries or even decades!

So how did the conventional notion of a centuries long evolution of the Bible come about? Biblical scholars, it is no secret to anyone, not even to themselves on the whole, do have interests that go beyond pure historical research. Even Julius Wellhausen, to whom we tend to attribute the modern notion of the “Documentary Hypothesis”, has been criticized for allowing his Protestant (anti-legalistic) bias to subconsciously influence his model of the “Documentary Hypothesis”. (The criticism has been directed at the widespread idea that “legalistic” texts were a late addition to the original “spiritual” and “prophetic” narratives found in the biblical canon.)

When hypotheses become facts

So much in biblical studies that passes for facts are actually hypotheses, or “theories” of a certain kind. But they are repeated so often it is hard to notice that they have no basis in the hard evidence. Look at this passage from Wellhausen:

With regard to the Jehovistic document [i.e. one proposed “early source” in the Bible], all are happily agreed that, substantially at all events, in language, horizon, and other features, it dates from the golden age of Hebrew literature, to which the finest parts of Judges, Samuel, and Kings, and the oldest extant prophetical writings also belong, the period of the kings and prophets which preceded the dissolution of the two Israelite kingdoms by the Assyrians. About the origin of Deuteronomy there is still less dispute; in all circles where appreciation of scientific results can be looked for at all, it is recognised that it was composed in the same age as that in which it was discovered, and that it was made the rule of Josiah’s reformation, which took place about a generation before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldaeans.

Wellhausen

That’s from

His assertion of relative dating is grounded entirely in scholarly consensus, not in the evidence itself. No doubt those scholars who make up the “consensus” believed they had serious evidence for dating the book of Deuteronomy to the days of King Josiah — but we will see that really they did not. They relied entirely upon “what the Bible says”.

There does happen to be archaeological evidence indicating that prior to the Hellenistic era Judeans and Samaritans had no knowledge of the biblical laws. I am referring to the finds in a Judean colony in Egypt, the Elephantine papyri. (I have not posted nearly enough about this find and what various scholars have had to say about it, but hope to make up for that lack very soon.) The Documentary Hypothesis, it has been pointed out by at least one scholar in the biblical field, might well never have got off the ground had the Elephantine remains — indicating that Persian era Jews knew nothing of the Pentateuch — been discovered earlier and had more time to gain traction and wider and more focused attention than it had before the time of Wellhausen’s work.

None of this is to say that biblical scholars are unprofessionally “biased” or “unscholarly”. Of course they are scholarly and their biases are generally known and admitted and taken into account. But their work tends to be picked up by others and over time taken for granted as fact.

Independent evidence is critical

The fact remains that there is no independent evidence that the OT was composed prior to the Hellenistic era. That datum alone does not prove it was a Hellenistic product. But it does at least allow for the theoretical possibility that it was created in the Hellenistic era, and given that our earliest independent evidence for a knowledge of the Pentateuch is situated in the Hellenistic era, it is entirely reasonable to begin with that era when searching for the Pentateuch’s origins.

It also is a fact that scholarship has only cursorily (by comparison) begun noting echoes of Hellenistic literature and thought within the Pentateuch itself. Those are facts. Another fact is that Documentary Hypothesis is not without its inconsistencies and problems – another point I can post about in more depth.

Those facts do not prove that the Pentateuch was created in the Hellenistic era. But they do at least make it possible to ask the question. It makes it all the more necessary for anyone proposing an earlier date to ground their reasons in supporting independent evidence of some kind.

The meaning of “Hellenistic”

The Hellenistic provenance of the Pentateuch does not deny any use of pre-Hellenistic literature or sayings or concepts. Hellenization even means a uniting of Greek and Asian cultures, not a replacement of one by the other. So one should expect in any Hellenistic era hypothesis for the Pentateuch clear allusions to non-Greek (i.e. local Canaanite and Syrian) sources. Yes, we can identify where passages in the Pentateuch are borrowed from ancient Ugaritic (Canaanite) or Syrian sources, but employing local literature does not contradict the Hellenistic era hypothesis for the Old Testament.

The fateful year of 1992

My own understanding of the history of the scholarship in this area informs me that the floodgates to a more widespread acceptability in questioning the “deep antiquity” (pre-Persian era) origin of any of the OT books were opened by Philip R. Davies in 1992 with his publication of In Search of Ancient Israel. The irony was that Davies was only collating various criticisms and doubts about the conventional wisdom of “biblical Israel” that had been available to scholars for some decades. But by bringing these questions and doubts all together in one short publication (only about 150 pages of discussion) Davies’ work started something of an academic “kerfuffle”. [The above sentences are a paraphrase from memory of a review of Davies’ book but, apologies, I cannot recall their source.] Davies himself argued at length for a Persian era provenance of many of the OT books, but those who followed the evidence he set out could see that the way was also open for an even later period. Some scholars identified stronger links between the Pentateuch and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) and Hellenistic literature than to anything earlier. One French scholar has even argued that the entire Primary History was composed by a priest in the Hasmonean era.

Davies certainly established the circularity of the arguments that much of the OT literature was composed in the times of King Josiah and the Babylonian captivity. He also brought together the archaeological evidence that indicates the very notion of “biblical Israel” (along with a kingdom of David and empire of Solomon) is as fanciful as King Arthur and Camelot.

The basics of historical inquiry

I opened this post with a reference to the methods of historians in nonbiblical fields. In short, those methods are nothing other than any journalistic or forensic or “common sense” method of trying to find out “what happened” — minus the theological provenance from which the quest is embarked upon. Start with what we know to be the most secure “facts” on the basis of collating independent evidence and working from there. Assuming that what we read in the Bible is a pathway to “the historical facts” is not safe: we need the support of independent evidence. Unfortunately, our cultural heritage has taught us too well that certain narratives about the past are “facts” (or at least based on facts) so that we find it very difficult to remove these from our minds when trying to see clearly the material evidence before our eyes.

 


2024-03-12

The Problem with an Early Date for the Hebrew Bible

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Imagine digging down through centuries of layers at an archaeological site and suddenly finding an old smartphone. You would know it must have been planted there by some trickster. You would know that it could not be more than a few years old despite uncovering it in a layer supposedly centuries old.

I believe it can be shown that a similar problem faces us when we try to place the earliest writings of the Bible back into the times of King David and Solomon. Further, if we try to check how old the Biblical works are and use in principle the same type of reasoning as we intuitively use for dating the approximate era of the smartphone, we default to the Hellenistic period. That is an extreme comparison but in principle it is a valid one. I will try to demonstrate its validity by quoting (in translation) the words of the scholar who was the first to assign the earliest works of the Bible to the time of King Solomon.

Gerhard von Rad

I am referring to Gerhard von Rad. (I introduced von Rad in a post outlining the rise of the Documentary Hypothesis.) The chapter of his that I am using is Collected studies on the Old Testament (= Gesammelte Studien zum Alten Testament), specifically his 1944 chapter, The Beginning of Historiography in Ancient Israel (= Der Anfang der Geschichtsschreibung im alten Israel pp 148-188)

Von Rad begins:

For the modern peoples of the West, historiography is one of the most natural intellectual activities. It seems to us to be absolutely essential for a more intensive understanding of existence. In this respect, the peoples of the Western culture are students and heirs of both Greek and biblical historiography.

Does that opening not set off alarm bells? I am writing in the context of earlier posts addressing works of Niels Peter Lemche, Philippe Wajdenbaum, Russell Gmirkin and others who argue for dating the origins of the Hebrew Bible in the Hellenistic era. Von Rad begins by pointing out that the only comparable historical writing to the Bible is found among the Greeks.

It is easy to see that most ancient peoples did not achieve this form of a more intensive understanding of existence. . . . [T]hey didn’t produce any historiography.

Not the Egyptians?

The ancient Egyptians were characterized by a striking inability to think historically in the sense described above. Eminently conservative, eminently fond of writing, they always focused their reflections on the past in an antiquarian way on details and were unable to grasp larger contexts.

Nor the Mesopotamians?

But the cultures of Mesopotamia, no matter how eventful the history in this area was, did not create a representation of history that went significantly beyond individual documents of the type mentioned above. At best, one can speak of an attempt to grasp the course of historical events in a uniform manner using list science. But their strength failed when faced with the task of presenting and interpreting national history in a unified manner.

But what of the Hellenistic era Greeks?

It was only Berossus who attempted to write their history, long after the great empires had left the stage of history. But this only happened under Greek influence. . . . There are only two peoples who really made history in ancient times: the Greeks and, long before them, the Israelites.

Some of us will be reminded of a work that argued for the Hebrew Bible using the Hellenistic era work of Berossus as one of its sources:

Interestingly, Gerhard von Rad noted that we do not have earlier primitive precursors to the historical writing we read in the Old Testament. The OT comes to us without known Hebrew forebears. It appears in a mature form, as if (my addition here) its forebears lay outside Palestine.

The “emergence” of ancient Israelite historiography cannot be described. It is there at a certain point in time, and it stands there before us in its most perfect form.

How to explain this sudden emergence of the historical writings — Genesis through to 1-2 Kings — of the Hebrew Bible? Von Rad posits three causes:

1. Israelites applied origin stories (etiologies) not only to local phenomena (e.g. various ethnic groups, an altar of stones, a deserted village) but to more universalistic themes: the place of women, why suffering, and so forth. This attention to “the basic facts of human existence” is thought to have given Israelites an edge in seeing the bigger picture of past events.

2. Israelites had an “overarching give of narrative exposition”. They could write simply yet powerfully.

3. Israelites, uniquely, had a monotheistic belief in a certain kind of God, a God who controlled all major human events. It wasn’t left up to demons or lesser sprites to direct human affairs but Yahweh himself.

You will probably be thinking that the above three explanations are really just other ways of describing what is begging for an explanation: why is it that historical writing as we see it in the Bible originated with Israelites, supposedly before the rise of Greek historical writing? The “explanations” also seem to suggest that the “Israelites” had qualities that set them apart from the rest of common humanity in their time.

My personal copy – a favourite

For von Rad, it was particularly the religious beliefs of the Israelites that was the key factor. Their god was imagined to have a position over humanity that no other god in the minds of other peoples had — with the exception of the later Greeks.

The Israelites came to thinking about history and then to writing history from their belief in the power of God to make history. For them, “history is an event of God. God sets the movement in motion with his promise. He sets the target according to his will and he watches over her… All history comes from God and occurs for God” [quoting Regenbogen, Thukydides als politischer Denker]. We can already see here: it is a very unique historical thinking that we are now approaching, because the focus of events is not at all on the earthly stage; neither nations, nor kings, nor glorious heroes are the actual actors; and therefore, in the ultimate sense, they are not the subject of the representation. And yet all the immanent events are followed with breathless interest and the highest inner involvement, precisely because it is the field of activity of divine action. Herodotus also knows “metaphysical powers that have a moving effect on the world of earthly events through a diverse apparatus of signs, prophecies and dreams” [quoting Regenbogen]. . . . 

For Herodotus it was the god Apollo who was overseeing and guiding the course of events in the struggle between the Greeks and Persians. Apollo’s oracle at Delphi functioned in a similar way to Yahweh’s Jerusalem. I once posted a brief outline of what other scholars have observed are overlaps between Herodotus’s Histories and the Bible’s “Primary History”: Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel.

Von Rad is always quick to try to point out where the Greek histories are unlike those in the Bible. I could discuss what he posits as significant differences but I want to focus here on the similarities and may do so in the near future. For example, he observes that the role of the divinity in guiding history is not as explicitly pervasive in Herodotus as it is in the Bible. I think such a difference is one of degree, not of kind.

Von Rad zeroes in on the biblical account of the rise of David to kingship and the rule of King Solomon as if that narrative is a historical record. He cannot conceive of it as fiction. It was written by a man full of godly character who is obviously documenting true events, so von Rad suggests:

We do not know the historian who described these events to us. He must have been a man who had precise knowledge of the circumstances and events at court. His descriptions breathe a closeness to life that makes any doubts about the reliability of his portrayal disappear. This author is characterized by a penetrating knowledge of human nature; His attitude towards David himself is particularly impressive. The figure of the king is everywhere drawn with warm sympathy and great reverence. However, the author has retained his freedom of judgment in the most unbiased manner. He never covered up the king’s guilt and failure. But even when he reports dark and ugly things with his “heroic truthfulness” that is unique in the Orient, he does not give in to the lasciviousness of gossip, but always remains chaste and noble. This leads us to the most important question, namely that of the theological and ideological content of his historiography.

The biblical description of the kingdom of David and Solomon is assumed to be historically valid: recall von Rad informing us of the ability of the biblical historian to write simply yet powerfully!

Von Rad explains that this history of David is told as a “secular” narrative with only three passages alerting us to God’s role behind the scenes. (He seems to be coming close to contradicting his earlier point that it was the theological emphasis that distinguished the Biblical historiography from that of the “more secular” Herodotus.)

[W]e have highlighted [in the account of David] the peculiarly secular way of presenting this historiography, for example in comparison to the naive belief in miracles in the heroic legend. This view of history and God’s actions in history must have been nothing short of revolutionary at the time.

King Solomon’s Court — Edward Poynter, 1890

And so we return to discovering the archaeologist unearthing a smartphone in a layer centuries old.

But to make this view of when the biblical history was written sound more plausible von Rad smooths out some of the edges of the idea of it being totally “revolutionary at the time”:

No matter how much one praises the originality and theological genius of our author, such a show also had to have its intellectual-historical prerequisites for the time, because in every historiography an “overall cultural consciousness” is presupposed.

Creativity does not arise without debt to preconditions of some kind.

So how to explain the appearance of this smartphone? For von Rad, it is not difficult:

It is really not difficult to understand this historiography in the context of the Solomonic era, within which it undoubtedly emerged. It was only in [this] epoch . . . that the new things that had already begun under David had a cultural impact on all sides. . . . Life began on a much broader cultural basis than was possible a generation ago. We hear from Solomon that he established large-scale trade relations with distant lands. Riches came into the land; luxury and well-being moved into the court and major building activity began. This flourishing economic life was naturally followed by an intensive intellectual exchange. At no time in the entire history of this people were the regulations against the importation of spiritual religious goods so liberally applied as in this era. The court was a foster home of international wisdom, like the Egyptian courts of old. The presence of so many foreigners gave rise to obligations which were readily fulfilled; places of worship were built for non-Israelite deities. In a word, the era of Solomon was an era of enlightenment, of the abrupt demolition of the old patriarchal order of life. 

That’s interesting in a way, but it prompts me to ask what foreign influences, what other peoples of the day, contributed to this secular and broad new historiography? Herodotus had not been born yet. What were the specific types of ideas that other peoples of Solomon’s day contributed to Solomon’s court that led to such “intellectual enlightenment”?

The archaic institution of holy war, the simple form of worship at shrines with its cult legends were undermined by a flood of secular thinking. The cult legends broke away from their traditional attachment points and became literature. Don’t we also feel this cool touch of a modern, free and entirely non-cultic spirituality in our historical work at every turn

What was it, one has to ask, about other cultures that enabled the birth of a “modern, free spirituality” in the days of Solomon? I doubt anyone can point to any work of literature, to any religious concept, among Israel’s neighbours that fostered such a modern concept.

I suggest that the simpler and more obvious answer should be found in the influence of Greek culture (both literature and ideas) that swept over the Levant and beyond after the conquests of Alexander the Great.


There is an English language version of Gerhard von Rad’s essay in From Genesis to Chronicles : explorations in Old Testament theology. See pages 125ff



2024-03-10

Four Ways Canaan Fell to Biblical Israel

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Canaanite (Wikimedia Commons)

In the first five books of the Bible there are four different ways God promises to give the land of Canaan to the Israelites. [I continue to write from the perspective argued by many scholars that the Bible’s narratives had multiple authors and that their respective stories did not always agree. In this post I make mention of conventional sources behind the biblical books (J, E, D…) but I do so mainly for convenience. I am aware that some scholarship has questioned the existence of these sources but my point here is that there are evidently different points of view being expressed in the Bible, however we might conceptualize them.]

Inheriting the land through natural population growth

In Genesis God promises Abraham that his descendants through Isaac will inherit the land and be a blessing to all nations roundabout. Genesis 12:2-3

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

In the previous post we saw that ….

The patriarchs served for the writers and editors of Genesis as models of tolerance and coexistence with at least some segments of the native population. (Frankel, p. 325)

For the Genesis authors and editors,

The promise of the land was thought of in terms of hegemony over peoples who would derive blessing from Israel’s dominance, not in terms of eradicating all that is foreign. Only the “enemies” who cursed the descendants of Abraham would be cursed. (ibid.)

When Jacob was passing on future blessings to his sons he condemned the violence of Simeon and Levi in destroying the Canaanite city of Shechem. Genesis 49:5-7

Simeon and Levi are brothers —their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.

While Judah is honoured for taking tribute from his enemies (Gen 49:8-10) and the descendants generally will “possess the gate of their enemies” (Gen 22:17),

There is no basis . . . for understanding these blessings as indicating that all the inhabitants of the land are destined for expulsion or destruction, as implied both in Deuteronomy’s re-use of the patriarchal promise motif and in the pentateuchal conquest laws. Rather, the military aspect is included as an additional element in the achievement of dominion in the land. The blessing of proliferation goes hand in hand with overall dominion and control in the land, not with destruction of all that is “other.” The blessing to mankind of great proliferation is analogously combined with dominion over creation, not with its destruction (Gen 1:28; 9:1–7 116 ). The very fact that the seed of Abraham will possess the gate of their enemies rather than the inhabitants of the land indicates that not all the inhabitants of the land will be “possessed” as enemies. Some inhabitants, rather, will be taken on as allies, or covenant partners in one sense or another . . . . (Frankel, 312)

I’m not saying that the Canaanites and Israelites will be equal partners in this scenario. It is an “idealistic” scenario for the twelve tribes insofar as the Canaanites in the land will honour and submit to them while receiving the blessings God promised through his people. So theoretically everybody knows their place in relation to one another and all are being blessed accordingly.

Clearly, the text speaks of supremacy in the land and not total displacement of all inhabitants. Here too, those who bless Jacob and accept his dominance will be blessed. (Frankel, 313)

Genesis as an outlier

Genesis is not like the other books in the Pentateuch, however. Unlike those other books (Exodus to Deuteronomy) Genesis is about “the establishment of the permanent order of the cosmos and the relationships among [peoples]”. Unlike in other books, God in Genesis appears as a man, face to face, walking with humans, talking with them mostly in the broad daylight, without need of an intermediary prophet. The customs we encounter in the narratives of Genesis are unique: e.g. Genesis is not at all embarrassed in the way it depicts Rachel stealing Laban’s idols or in Joseph and Jacob being embalmed as per the Egyptian Osiris cult.

Nor does Genesis allude in any way to Israel’s unique religious status. Abraham is a God-fearing, just man; but neither in the promises made to him nor in those made to his descendants is the distinction of possessing YHWH’s Torah, or the fact that Ishmael and Esau will be idolaters mentioned. The religious rift that separates Israel from the nations, so prominent in the rest of the books of the Torah, is never hinted at in Genesis. Here, Israel’s distinction is purely one of lineage; it is “lord over its brethren” (27:29). True, there is a covenant between God and Israel’s ancestors; but its promises are purely ethnic: numerous progeny, territorial possessions, and kingship. (Kaufmann, 207)

The story we read in Exodus has only the slimmest connections with the central narratives about the patriarchs in Genesis.

[T]here is no reference at all to the constantly repeated promise of increase addressed to the fathers, of which the author is obviously not aware. The situation is even more striking with the first mention of the land into which it has been proclaimed, the Israelites are to journey after they have been rescued from slavery in Egypt. The text reads: ‘I will lead you into a good, broad land, into a land that flows with milk and honey, the home of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites’ (3.8). The land is introduced here as an unknown land, and more, as a land that is the home of foreign nations; there is not a word which mentions that the patriarchs have already lived a long time in this land and that God has promised it to them and their descendants as a permanent possession. Following the terminology of the promise of the land in Genesis, those addressed here would be the ‘seed’ for whom the promise holds good. But they are not spoken to as such. (Rendtorff, 84f)

One may surely conclude that the authors behind this work were unaware of what others were writing/would write about Moses and Mount Sinai and Joshua’s conquests. (The passage in Genesis 15:13-16 prophesying of the Exodus reads most oddly out of place: it does not relate to the question Abraham has asked and that God is setting up to respond to. Many scholars see this passage as a late addition. Rendtorff’s observation (85): “This text stands in splendid isolation within the patriarchal story“.)

God will drive them out before/as the Israelites arrive

Exodus 34:11

Then the Lord said: . . . I am about to drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

Presumably the God imagines the Israelites crossing into the land before the native inhabitants have all fled so he goes on to warn his people not to make any covenants with them and to destroy all their cult statues. (This passage is said by many scholars to belong to the “J source” of the Pentateuch.)

Another passage, one scholars attribute to the “E source” within the Pentateuch:

Exodus 23:27-30

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.

So here it is God who removes the Canaanites:

The pre-Deuteronomic tradition speaks almost exclusively of the expectation that the displacement of the Canaanites would be accomplished by God. . . . The expulsion, J believed, was to have been carried out by Yhwh. . . . J imagined the promise to have been one of miraculous expulsion of the Canaanites; Israel’s only task was not to get in the way. . . .

. . . Yet in E, as in J, the actual expulsion of the existing population was to be carried out by God. In contrast to J, however, E speaks of a prediction that it would be done in stages. (Schwartz, 157)

God commands the Israelites to slaughter them all

Now we come to a strikingly different source, one that scholars call “D”. Here we find no compassion, no mercy, towards the Canaanites. The descendants of the patriarchs are expected to bloody their own hands

Deuteronomy 7:16

You must destroy all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you.

Deuteronomy 20:16-17

However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the Lord your God has commanded you.

The Land itself will “vomit” them out

Leviticus 18:25-28

Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.

Leviticus 20:22-24

Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. But I said to you, You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Here the land God is handing over to the Israelites is “a land flowing with milk and honey”. But if the people sin that land will “vomit them out”.

The land of Canaan, in H’s view [H is another source discerned by scholars, alongside J, E, D above], is a fertile and bountiful land unless it is contaminated by human transgression. When that occurs, its skies withhold their rainfall, desert winds wither its grain, armies of locusts descend upon it, its trees and fields fail to yield their produce, pestilence breaks out, and wild beasts roam the countryside—and its inhabitants, impoverished and plagued by hunger and thirst, must leave in search of greener pastures. (Schwartz, 166)

As Baruch Schwatz views these two passages in Leviticus, the author is imagining that the Canaanites will already have been driven out of the land because of their sins, and that the land will be punished with drought and crop failure by the time the Israelites arrive. The Israelites will therefore enter a land of milk and honey. But they must beware lest they also commit the same sins as the former inhabitants and the abundant land turns once again to desolation and in turn drives them out.

Conclusion

There are many voices in the Bible. The traditional Documentary Hypothesis has worked with the view that these different voices emerged over many generations and at some stage a group of editors sought to combine them in a single narrative or collection of books with an overall narrative. Once that combined work was finished, later editors with new ideas undertook to revise that narrative even more with further additions. Hence we have a work riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions, unfinished or obscure details, and so forth.

More recently some scholars have questioned aspects of the above model. Would not later editors with new ideas seek to eliminate accounts that they strongly disagreed with and produce a more coherent work? After all, that’s what the authors of 1-2 Chronicles did when they rewrote the history of the kings of Israel and Judah. Some scholars have suggested that a better explanation is that editors were attempting to combine into a single narrative multiple viewpoints of different interest groups. The technical terms are that a “synchronic” model of composition (stitching together multiple narratives from different ideological quarters, Levitical and Aaronide, Jerusalem and Samaria, etc) as opposed to the conventional “diachronic” (or multi-generational) model.

Baruch Schwartz has tackled this question in detail and in one of his areas of inquiry, the story of Joseph (Genesis 37) as a linking narrative designed to join the book of Genesis with that of Exodus, concludes in relation to that particular story (my bolded highlighting):

Our analysis demonstrates, first and foremost, that the process of composition of Gen 37 was essentially a canonical one, aimed at collecting, collating and preserving literary works already in existence. The outcome of the compilation process was determined — to the letter — by the pre-existing sources themselves. These were received by the compiler in the form of fully shaped, continuous and internally consistent written narratives, and the compiler viewed them as possessing a measure of sanctity that rendered it desirable, indeed obligatory, to refrain as much as possible from altering, detracting from or adding to them.

Genesis 37 in its canonical form shows no signs of being the result of creative narrative art, nor does it appear to be the work of ideologically or theologically motivated redactors who, having selected freely those sources and traditions that were best suited to their purposes, molded them into a new whole precisely as they wished. The compiler of Gen 37 had no say in determining either its content or its form; he was responsible neither for its themes and motifs nor for its religious teachings; he was not even at liberty to decide what to include and what to exclude. All of these aspects of literary license and creativity belong to the earlier stages in the formation of the Torah. . . .

The analysis of Gen 37 reveals further that no single source served as the underlying text to which the compiler added what he deemed appropriate from the other documents. The compiler did not use E as his Vorlage, adding to it whatever portions of J and P he felt that he needed, nor did he use J as his primary text, adding to it whatever he chose from E and P. He did not stratify, superimposing portions of a later document upon an earlier one or portions of an earlier one upon a later one. The unmistakable impression one receives is that the compiler attached equal weight to the two narratives — as well as to the opening segment from P, which he placed precisely where he was obligated to place it — and so he combined them by alternating between them, adhering meticulously to the principles of composition we have identified: maximal preservation of each source, strict chronological progression, avoidance of addition and deletion and continuing the thread of each narrative as long as possible, moving to the other thread at exactly the point when it becomes necessary to do so, not a single word earlier or later.

Finally and most crucially, our analysis reveals that the result arrived at by the compiler, the composite chapter in its canonical form, is, given the method that he evidently employed, the only possible result that could have been obtained. The final form of the chapter is not a function of the compiler’s ideological agenda, theological tendencies, aesthetic tastes, or artistic abilities. His role was confined entirely to the painstaking arrangement of the existing texts in combined form. The case of Gen 37 is in no way atypical; the composite narratives throughout the remainder of the Pentateuch all yield similar results.

Russell Gmirkin’s studies have placed both the disparate sources and the final compiler of those sources into the result we see today in the Hellenistic time-setting (see Plato and the Hebrew Bible and Plato and the Biblical Creation Accounts). Baruch Schwartz, from my understanding of his works, would place those sources much earlier. I may favour the Gmirkin’s Hellenistic provenance, but the account of how we arrive at such a final text (bound by a single narrative yet riddled with inconsistencies) as outlined above by Schwartz makes a lot of sense to me.


Frankel, David. The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel: Theologies of Territory in the Hebrew Bible. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2011.

Kaufmann, Yeḥezkel. The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile. Translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.

Rendtorff, Rolf. The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch.  London; Gordonsville: Sheffield Academic Press, 2009.

Schwartz, Baruch J. “Reexamining the Fate of the ‘Canaanites’ in the Torah Traditions.” In Sefer Moshe: The Moshe Weinfeld Jubilee Volume : Studies in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, Qumran, and Post-Biblical Judaism, edited by Chaim Cohen, Avi Hurvitz, and Shalom M. Paul, 151–70. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2004. https://www.academia.edu/39296080/Reexamining_the_Fate_of_the_Canaanites_in_the_Torah_Traditionshttps://www.academia.edu/39296080/Reexamining_the_Fate_of_the_Canaanites_in_the_Torah_Traditions


 


2024-03-09

How Patriarchs of the Jews Lived in Peace with Canaanites

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by Neil Godfrey

We know all about the commands in Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy ordering Israel to wipe out, annihilate, the Canaanites. The command was to tear down their altars, destroy their cities and avoid forming any alliances with them, certainly not to intermarry with them. The Book of Genesis is evidence that some of the authors of the biblical books had a very different view of how their neighbours should be treated. [I am writing from the perspective argued by many scholars that the Bible’s narratives had multiple authors and that their respective stories did not always agree.] In my previous post we saw that founding heroes were understood as models for how their reputed descendants ought to behave towards others. With that in mind, recall the following details from your Sunday School days….

Abraham

— made an alliance with Canaanites and joined with them to defeat foreign invaders: Gen 14:13, 24

— restored both the material losses and the political independence of the Canaanite cities: Gen. 14:16-24

— pleaded with God to save the Canaanite city of Sodom from destruction: Gen 18:23-33

— paid tithes to the priest of the god El Elyon in the Canaanite city of Salem: Gen 14:18-20

Abraham purchases field of Ephron the Hittite, Attrib Pierter Coeck van Aelst – Royal Collection Trust

— made a covenant with Philistines, promising peaceful coexistence between the Philistines and Abraham’s descendants: Gen 21:27, 31-34

— married a presumably local (Canaanite) woman and took local concubines: Gen 25:1, 6

— built new altars but never came into conflict with the religious practices of the Canaanites: Gen 12:6-8; 13:18

— publicly purchased land from the Hittites (who respected him as a “mighty prince”) for his and his wife’s burial: Gen 23:5-20; 25:7-10

The fact that the author depicts Abraham as purchasing the burial plot in public view of the Hittites in order to guarantee his claim to it against future Hittite claims (or Israelite claims that the site is foreign?) probably shows that, in contrast to the conquest laws, he considers the continuous presence of the Hittites in the land to be both obvious and normative. (Frankel, p. 286)

Isaac

— made a covenant with the Philistine Abimelech in the Canaanite city of Gerar: Gen 26:28-31

— repeatedly retreated when local Canaanite shepherds stole his well until there was enough room for everyone: Gen 26:19-22

Jacob

— reacted with horror and shame at the cruelty and injustice of his sons’ destruction of Shechem whose people had made generous offers to his family: Gen 34

Many scholars have demonstrated that the story of Dinah has several inner tensions. On the one hand, one finds several strong expressions of sympathy for Jacob’s sons and justification for the sack of Shechem. . . . On the other hand, the narrative seems to go out of its way to depict the people of Shechem as being wronged innocents. . . . All of these tensions have led several scholars to hypothesize that an original story depicting the sack of Shechem in negative terms was supplemented at a later date with the intention of justifying the harsh massacre. (Frankel, pp 294f)

One wonders if this narrative was composed as a rebuke to those who wished for the destruction of Canaanite cities.

Judah

— took a Canaanite woman and chose Canaanites to be his sons’ wives: Gen 38


Frankel, David. The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel: Theologies of Territory in the Hebrew Bible. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2011.



2024-03-07

The Age of Inventions of Mythical Histories — Greek and Biblical

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by Neil Godfrey

Some readers will be aware that I am sympathetic to the view that the books of the Old Testament were products of the Hellenistic era. I believe that sound historical methods involving critical analysis of assertions against evidence make such a late dating highly plausible. But it is also vital to be as fully informed as possible about alternative views that would date the origins of the Hebrew Bible to the Persian era or earlier. This requires looking at linguistic and textual arguments as well as archaeological studies. In coming posts I would like to address some of the readings in these areas that I have been undertaking as I have tried to catch up with old and recent publications. My aim will be to present various arguments in ways that are easily digestible for those of us with little time to study academic tomes and specialist papers.

Meanwhile, it will be of interest to some to know a little more about what the Hellenistic world was like for assessing the plausibility of works like Genesis and Exodus emerging from there.

Can we really imagine whole new histories and family genealogies being invented for particular groups of people?

Prof. Dr. Tanja Susanne Scheer, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Let’s look at how the Greek world documented and even created new histories of origins during the Hellenistic era, that is after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 330s-320s. This is nothing more than an introduction. I quote passages from Tanja S. Scheer’s contribution to A Companion to the Hellenistic World, “The Past in a Hellenistic Present: Myth and Local Tradition”. The first three subheadings are identical to those Scheer used. All bolded highlighting is my own.

Myth as History According to the Greeks

The relationship of Hellenistic Greeks to their past is shaped by much older traditions. In particular two important points characterize the relationship to the past: its genealogical structuring and its re-shaping by epic poetry. . . . Self definition as well as assessment by others are marked by genealogical connections. The past of his own family, of his home city, of his tribe defines the identity and status of the individual in the present . . . . [W]hole cities also prided themselves on their ancestors and founders. (216)

You are probably already reminded of the many genealogies and narratives to justify who’s who and where in the Bible, beginning with Genesis. Genealogies could be used to assert territorial claims but also to explain how related peoples were expected to support one another or know their respective status.

Were these genealogies historically true?

This pronounced Greek interest in ancestry and kinship was, however, not properly historical. The past was only of importance when it was marked by famous personalities or by deeds of mythical heroes. A family tree that ended with an anonymous smallholder was of little use. Even as proof of the great age of a family it could not offer much help: for great age only really began when the genealogy could be traced back to heroic times and thereby into the society of heroes or even gods . . .

Fact checking was not part of the agenda:

People were at a loss when confronted with written or archaeological discoveries from their own past, which chance had brought to light. The Greeks reconstructed the past not so much through concrete evidence from early times but rather with the help of their traditional stories, of myth. . . . Questions about the past led to heroic, not historically correct, answers . . . Already long before Hellenistic times, however, Greek logographers and historians had made the fictional events of epic the focal point of their history and accepted them as containing at least a core of truth. (217)

Ancestries of any worth always went back to the gods:

The habit of evaluating the qualities of individuals and even of cities on the basis of their ancestry understandably encouraged the desire to number the gods themselves — or at least the heroes of epic — among one’s own ancestors. (218)

Past and Present in the Hellenistic Period

There was, in addition, a moral or ethical aspect. The myths surrounding great ancestors were treated as exemplars of how their descendants were expected to behave. If Heracles had conquered Troy or Asian peoples then his descendants were expected to do the same; if Heracles had shown kindness to a city, his descendants were obligated to do likewise.

[T]he history of the family imposed an obligation. Thus the political writer Isokrates could present Herakles as a model for his descendant Philip . . . . The deeds of Herakles in the first conquest of Troy were used to legitimate, and also to oblige, Philip to carry out successful military action in the present — that is the campaign against the Persians . . . . (218)

. . . in the run up to the Persian Wars Persian envoys are supposed to have come to Argos in an attempt to win the Argives over to their side — by appealing to their mutual mythical ancestor Perseus . . . . (219)

(Some scholars have suspected the biblical stories of David’s conquests were created to justify Hasmonean conquests of their neighbours.)

The Greeks Abroad

As the Macedonians and Greeks advanced into new lands of old cultures they did not boast of “being the first” to discover these places; on the contrary,

. . . the stress was placed over and over again on familiar elements in these foreign lands: the geographical opening up of the world took place in the footsteps of great forerunners, of gods and heroes from the mythical past.

Throughout his campaign Alexander recognized Greek gods and heroes in foreign lands; he called on them pointedly and paid honour to them. . . .

In the case of Alexander’s campaigns this emphasis on the mythical past of the Macedonians and Greeks tended to integrate rather than exclude. The aim was by no means a one-sided ennobling of the Macedonians at the expense of the indigenous peoples whom they encountered. Family relationships based on myth did not have the function of an exclusive patent of nobility. Alexander and his generals endeavoured on the contrary to establish a connection between Greeks and Persians. (219)

Some will recall Russell Gmirkin’s discussion of the biblical patriarchs being at ease with local gods in Canaan, some of whom came to be identified with the Israelite deity.

Scheer notes that there was a practical power-play at work by this kind of integration of Greek and local gods:

This integrating use of the mythical past was not simply an unselfish mark of respect or recognition for non-Greek civilizations on the part of the Greeks. At stake surely was the need to prevent the Greek claim to power from appearing to the conquered as foreign rule. (219)

Note, further, that there are two different ways of treating non-Israelite locals (or Canaanites) in the Bible. Many of us know about the commands in Exodus and elsewhere to slaughter them all, or if that cannot be done then to have nothing whatever to do with them. But other narratives demonstrate the virtue of “Israel” being a blessing to foreigners, of peacefully coexisting with their neighbours. (I hope to elaborate on this point in a future post, along with the reasons for thinking that these two viewpoints were even contemporaneous.)

You will recall the stories in Genesis linking patriarchal figures to particular geographical areas where they would erect an altar or bury a family member. We might compare:

At least as important, however, was the opportunity for the Greeks to take mental possession of these new lands. In this aim the structure of the traditional stories of the Greeks was of considerable assistance. A common method of intellectual subjugation of unfamiliar lands consisted in making them accessible through eponymous heroes: every river, every tree, every region, according to the Greek view, was inhabited by local supernatural powers. Once the areas which they reached were mythically personalized, then the local family trees could easily be connected to well-known Greek heroes. . . . The foreign land was not really unknown: their own ancestors had after all once passed through it victoriously. . . . The cultivation of a mythical past was valuable for the Hellenistic present; even in the most far-flung foreign land traces of old familiar patterns could be discovered. Thus, the new world could be integrated into the old as something already familiar. (219f)

Creating Mythical Histories Continue reading “The Age of Inventions of Mythical Histories — Greek and Biblical”


2024-02-14

How Moving Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple to the Beginning of the Gospel of John Rebuked the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

Why did the author of the Gospel of John change the setting of Jesus driving out the money changers from the Temple from near the end of the gospel (where it is in all the other gospels) to place it near the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus? In those other gospels the episode serves as a plausible reason for the authorities to have Jesus arrested, tried and finally executed. But the Gospel of John has composed the account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead to provoke the religious authorities to capture and eliminate Jesus. The temple episode is shifted to near the beginning of the narrative. Why did the author do that?

Gary Greenberg — it’s been twelve years since I posted about GG’s views!

Gary Greenberg in a 2018 publication, Proving Jesus’ Authority in Mark and John: Overlooked Evidence of a Synoptic Relationship, proposes an interesting explanation. I will touch on a few of Greenberg’s key points but not attempt a full coverage of his extended and somewhat complex argument. (You may find the complexities count against Greenberg’s interpretation. Maybe, or maybe not: I leave those details aside here.)

In a nutshell, Greenberg suggests that the author of the Gospel of John opposed the Gospel of Mark’s image of Jesus achieving his great authority and fame because of his miracles and wanted to present Jesus astonishing the crowds because of the authority of his teaching, not his powers. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus begins his public career with exorcisms and healing miracles that attract followers to him throughout Galilee. In the Gospel of John Jesus’ first miracle (turning water to wine at the wedding) is a private affair known only to his disciples. The Gospel of John replaces Mark’s public miracles (casting out demons) with the cleansing of the temple (casting out money-changers) in Jerusalem and that action, along with his declaration of authority, becomes known throughout Galilee. In John’s gospel, Jesus denounces belief in him because of the miracles whereas in Mark’s gospel a positive impression is given of the power of miracles to attract people to Jesus.

Let’s start with the first miracle that propelled Jesus to fame according to the Gospel of Mark, generally recognized as the earliest of our canonical gospels. Greenberg’s larger argument is that the author of the Fourth Gospel knows the Gospel of Mark and is rewriting it according to a theological perspective that he (“John”) believes is more appropriate. (I have expressed a similar view in the past largely on the basis that the Gospel of John can be interpreted as a step by step undertaking to turn the Gospel of Mark “inside out”, so to speak. The most prominent example would be the replacing of Mark’s “messianic secret” — the theme that Jesus keeps his messianic identity secret from the general public until the very end — with John’s Jesus who loudly and regularly proclaims to all and sundry his messianic and divine identity.) But we begin with the Gospel of Mark because we see how the first miracles of Jesus there may well help explain why the author of John’s Gospel has replaced them with the Temple cleansing.

Both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John begin with an encounter with John the Baptist. John points to Jesus in both gospels (though in different ways). In Mark Jesus goes on to call two pairs of disciples:  Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew, and then James and John. In the Gospel of John Jesus also calls two pairs of disciples: Peter and Andrew, and then Philip and Nathanael.

In the Gospel of Mark we then read about Jesus entering a synagogue, casting out a demon from one possessed, and thereby astonishing all onlookers at his power and authority.

Compare the effect of the cleansing of the temple on Jesus becoming famously known in Galilee: John 4:45 Then when he was come into Galilee, the Galilaeans received him, having seen all the things that he did at Jerusalem at the feast: for they also went unto the feast.

Mark 1:27-28

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

From that moment on Jesus’ fame spreads like wildfire. Look at the details of note as set out by Gary Greenberg (with my own bolded highlighting) on page 78:

  • . . . At the beginning, we are told that the exorcism happened immediately after Jesus arrived at Capernaum. At the end, we are told that pursuant to this specific act, Jesus’ fame immediately began to spread throughout the Galilee for the first time. The exorcism takes place in between these two frames.
  • The story takes place in a Jewish place of worship, the synagogue in Capernaum.
  • The demon in this story is an “unclean spirit” that inhabits a human body. “Unclean” is the term used in the story. Although the nature of the infliction is not clearly spelled out, it appears that the body suffered from significant corrupting influences that need to be removed. 
  • The spirit challenges Jesus’ authority to deal with it. “What have you to do with us?”
  • The demon knows who Jesus really is.
  • Jesus chased the corrupting influence out of the host body and out of the house of worship. 
  • The story establishes Jesus’ authority to introduce “a new teaching.” 
  • It establishes Jesus’ authority over unclean spirits (although it is not clear that this is a special power unique to Jesus.) 
  • The crowds were amazed
  • Jesus’ reputation in Galilee soared because of this first exorcism.

Now when Gary Greenberg examines the Gospel of John’s temple cleansing event, he senses in the following details intimations of Mark’s first exorcism story (pp 84f):

  • In both Mark and John, immediately after arriving in Capernaum for the first time, Jesus enters a Jewish house of worship. In Mark, this is the synagogue in Capernaum; in John, the Temple in Jerusalem [in John Jesus walks quickly through Capernaum on his way to Jerusalem]. (In John, this also fulfills Malachi’s prophecy about “the Lord” “suddenly” coming to the Temple.)
  • In both Mark and John, Jesus finds corrupting influences inside a house of worship that need to be chased away. In Mark, it is the “unclean spirit”; In John, it is the merchants.
  • In both Mark and John, the corrupting influence is associated with somebody’s body. In Mark, the “unclean spirit” inhabits a man’s body. In John, there is a gloss by the author saying that when Jesus referred to raising the Temple, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” While John doesn’t precisely identify the Jerusalem Temple with Jesus’ body, he does create a literary situation in which the authorities mistakenly think that Jesus’ symbolic reference to his body is a direct reference to the Jerusalem Temple, which housed the corrupting influences.
  • In both Mark and John, Jesus introduces a new teaching that challenges traditional beliefs. Mark doesn’t say what Jesus said, but the congregation says that it is “a new teaching—with authority.” But in John we do get the content of a new teaching, to wit: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” John’s new teaching challenges traditional Passover and religious practices in the Temple.
  • In both Mark and John, the corruptors challenge the authority of Jesus to confront them. In Mark, the demon says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In John, the authorities ask, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In John, the challenge is raised after the expulsion by authorities who do not know who Jesus is. In Mark the challenge is raised before the expulsion by a demon who knows who Jesus is.
  • In both Mark and John, the corrupting influence was chased out of the house of worship. In Mark, it is the demon; in John, the merchants.
  • In both Mark and John, the non-corrupt onlookers recognize the authority of Jesus to deliver a new teaching.
  • In both Mark and John, immediately after the respective incidents, witnesses from Galilee spread word of Jesus’ actions, bringing him widespread fame and authority in Galilee for the first time.
  • In Mark, the exorcism serves as proof of the authority to introduce a new teaching. In John, the words of his teaching prove his authority.

The author of the Gospel of John was not impressed by Jesus performing exorcisms. After all, Luke (Luke 11:19) pointed out that exorcisms could be and were performed by just about anyone.

No, no “common” exorcisms appear in the Gospel of John. For the author of the Fourth Gospel, though Jesus performed unparalleled signs, Jesus would not trust anyone who followed him simply because of those signs. One had to register the word of truth itself from Jesus. In the Gospel of John Jesus constantly admonishes the necessity of following him because of his teaching, not because of his miracles. And exorcisms did not even rate as worthy of signs for the Johannine Son of God.

The Temple cleansing in Jerusalem is framed by Capernaum events that parallel those in the Gospel of Mark. To illustrate the first part of that frame ….

Gospel of Mark Gospel of John
And they went into Capernaum (1:21) After this He went down to Capernaum (2:12)
— First public act — exorcism of unclean spirit (1:22-26) — First public act — temple cleansing (2:13-22)
— First public act made Jesus famous in Galilee for the first time (1:27-28)

And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him. And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee.

— First public act made Jesus famous in Galilee for the first time (4:43-45)

When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, for they also had been there.

I intend in this post to do nothing more than raise awareness of the possibility that the Gospel of John was using a counter-narrative to rebut the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus using miracles to demonstrate his authority and draw a following. In that context one might understand the fourth evangelist substituting the cleansing of the temple for the exorcism in the synagogue as Jesus’ first public act.

The first objection you probably have to the above is the fact that in John’s gospel the effect of the cleansing of the temple (described in chapter 2) on Jesus’ reputation in Galilee is not mentioned until chapter 4. Gary Greenberg answers that such readjustments were made in order to work a series of Jerusalem visits into the new account.


2024-01-31

The True Tale of How an Eagle, a Lion, a Man, and a Lot of Bull Entered the Church

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by Neil Godfrey

Source: Wikipedia

As I was recently tossing out old papers that had accumulated over past decades I was amused to come across this old “gem” of mine. I posted it back in 1996 to a discussion forum for ex-members of an old cult I had once been a member of. It has no pretence at scholarly presentation. It is simply an off-the-cuff reflection on what I had been reading at the time about how the New Testament came into being. There are details in it that I would not fully stand by today but “for old time’s sake” here is what I wrote for a select audience 28 years ago.

(The reference to the Waldensians and Cathars had particular relevance to us cult and ex-cult members of the day — we curiously believed we were their heirs in some sense.)

THE TRUE TALE OF HOW AN EAGLE, A LION, A MAN, AND A LOT OF BULL ENTERED THE CHURCH

Following is a lengthy brief summary of why most Christians today can claim Mr Irenaeus, a bishop who lived about 130-200, as the reason for their New Testament Bibles. He was the one who began the invention of the New Testament. He did this in order to have a tool to preserve the power of the catholic bishops whenever they were confronted with nuisances who wanted to base their beliefs directly on the original teachings of Christ instead of relying on the traditions and authority of those bishops.

By mid second century, Christians were a pretty diverse lot without any concept of an “inspired” New Testament canon. The sabbath-observing portion of the Palestinian church accepted only the writings of Matthew; some docetist believers only used Mark; Valentinus’ followers accepted only the gospel of John; and others who followed Paul to his logical conclusions sought to uncover the original text of Luke and rejected all else as contradictory to what Christ and Paul taught three to four generations earlier. (Note that archaeology indicates that the average life-span of a lower-class Palestinian in the first century was about 30 years — a point that puts “late eyewitness” arguments in an interesting context.) And there were other gospels, too, as well as copies of the “Teachings of Christ”. Moreover, the reason a believer tended to follow only one gospel in opposition to the others was that that believer was convinced that the others contradicted his authority, and/or was a late forgery.

Out of all this confusion (or richly rewarding diversity for the more secure?) arose a powerful threat to the power of many established bishops. His name was Marcion, a brilliant thinker who rejected “human church tradition” as his authority and who sought instead to rely only on apostolic authority. He saw that the church had corrupted some of the original texts of Paul and Luke (modern scholars in this age when knowledge has increased have come to the same conclusions) and believed only what he read in their original texts, and not the traditions that the bishops said he should believe.

Many followed Marcion and his arguments against the traditions of the catholic bishops. He became a threat to the power of these bishops. Then the bishops found a defender and saviour of their power, position and traditions in Irenaeus.

(Some who read this will by now be jumping up and down wanting to argue that Marcion was a gnostic heretic. As you wish, but my point is that he was a powerful influence in the second century church and many believers were persuaded that he was truer to the original teachings of Jesus than the traditions that had developed among the bishop-ruled church. Recall that his enemies were the fathers of those who were the enemies of the Waldensians, and the Waldensians were also accused of gnosticism.)

Irenaeus did not have the same incisive and logically detailed mind as Marcion, but he did have faith and a determination to preserve and extend the authority and traditions of the bishops over believers. Disregarding the contradictions among the various gospels he stridently argued that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should ALL be accepted as authoritative, basically because of his assertion that the traditions that he personally accepted about them were true. (He was not interested in historical or textual research as Marcion was, and many of those traditions have since been shown to have very little merit indeed.) Of course by blanketly asserting the authority of these four, Irenaeus was also partly opening the way for most dissidents (who believed in at least one of them) to return to the fold.

And to those who did not accept the authority of the bishops, he “proved” his point by powerfully demonstrating that they coincided with the four winds and corners of the earth. But wait, there was more! Each could, with a little ingenuity, be fitted with a nicely matching mythological head — eagle, lion, man and bull. (Later generations had a lot of trouble with Irenaeus’s taste in hybrids, though, and kept swapping these heads around to try them out on different gospel torsos from the ones to which Mr I. had attached them.)

So there! This was the catholic bishop’s answer to those hard questions about contradictions in the texts and evidence of late and spurious authorship and editing. Marcion had been seeking to rely exclusively on the original teachings of one apostle. Irenaeus saw the danger of this to the authority of the bishops and used his episcopal authority to declare non-apostolic authors as authoritative, too. (e.g. Mark and the late revised edition of Luke). This showed that the apostles were not so special after all, and that the bishop-led church (not the apostles) had the right to decide what traditions, writings and doctrines people should believe. No more Marcionites or Ebionites or others who snubbed their noses at the tradition and authority of the bishops in preference for their exclusively “apostolic” authority!

And that is why today we still all believe that those four gospels alone are authoritative. (It was quite some time after Irenaeus that they actually introduced the idea that they were “inspired” or “God-breathed”. And later on, after the dust had settled, the more imaginative theologians could be given the job of making up a whole lot of stuff so that their blatant inconsistencies — and any tell-tale signs of spurious authorship and later unauthorized editing — could be “harmonized” away.)

Irenaeus carried the flag for the authority of the catholic bishops and introduced the idea that the church would eventually have to finalize a New Testament canon if the bishop’s power were to be maintained against smart-alecs who sought to uncover and rely exclusively on the original words of Christ and/or any of the apostles.

In future generations, Christians could claim that there was an undisputed tradition in the church that these four gospels were penned by two genuine, original apostles and two genuine off-siders of another two apostles. Well, there was such a tradition at least from the second century, I guess, IF one accepts that the incipient Catholic Church of the third century was the only church worth considering, and if they further acknowledge the authority and teachings of the bishops of that Church.

But even if that is the case, then one has to wonder why Irenaeus did not include a whole lot of other writings that we now have in our New Testament — if indeed there was such an indisputable tradition — not to mention why other texts he believed were authoritative were subsequently dropped and lost altogether.


2024-01-28

Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 7

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing and concluding….. 

Peter Kirby cites an argument for interpolation not from a source agreeing with the argument but rather from a source disposing of it. He quotes Robert Webb:

A second argument is that the nouns used for ‘baptism’ in this text (βαπτισμός and βάπτισις, Ant. 18.117) are not found elsewhere in the Josephan corpus, which may suggest that this vocabulary is foreign to Josephus and is evidence of interpolation. However, we may object that using a word only once does not mean it is foreign to an author. Josephus uses many words only once . . . .

(Webb, p. 39)

I try to make a habit of always checking footnotes and other citations to try to get my own perspective on the sources a book is referencing. If one turns to a scholar who is agreeing with the argument that Webb is addressing, one sees that Webb has presented the argument in a somewhat eviscerated form. Here is how it is presented by a scholar who is trying to persuade readers to accept it as distinct from Webb’s format that is aiming to persuade you to disagree with it.

Against this, it seems that scholars try to blur the fact that this brief pas­sage also contains unique words unparalleled in any of Josephus’s writ­ings, notably words that, as I shall attempt to prove, are semantically and conceptually suspect of a Christian hand — βαπτιστής, βαπτισμός, βάπτισιν, έπασκουσιν, αποδεκτός.

(Nir, p. 36)

I covered the bapt- words in the previous post so this time I look at the other two, έπασκουσιν (as in “lead righteous lives”) and αποδεκτός (as in “if the baptism was to be acceptable“) along with some others. Keep in mind that what follows is sourced from Rivka Nir’s more detailed discussion in her book The First Christian Believer, and all the additional authors I quote I do so because Nir has cited at least some part of them. (To place Rivka Nir in context see my previous post.)

έπασκουσιν (ep-askousin = labour/toil at, cultivate/practise): άρετήν ἐπασκουσιν = lead/practise righteousness/virtue

The word appears in this section of the John the Baptist passage:

For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead [επασκουσιν] righteous lives and prac­tise

justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism . . .

There are two possible interpretations here. Should we translate the passage to indicate

  • John was exhorting Jews to practice, labour at, lead virtuous and righteous lives and so undergo baptism?

Or

  • should the scene be translated to indicate that John is commanding those Jews who were known for their righteousness and special virtue to be baptized (for the consecration of their bodies, since they had already become righteous through their living prior to baptism)?

Scholarly opinions are divided. Rivka Nir takes the side of those who interpret it in the latter manner: John is addressing a sectarian group who “practise” a righteous way of living and telling them to be baptized. What is in Nir’s mind, of course, is that the author of this passage was from such a sectarian community.

That we are dealing with an elect group is equally evident in how the passage depicts John’s addressees, whom the author designates as ‘Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God’. This description lends itself to two readings. Most read the two participles forms έπασκουσιν [lead, practise, labour at] and χρωμένοις as circumstantial attribu­tives modifying the exhortation itself.

Nir, p. 49

It can be interpreted to mean EITHER that John is exhorting Jews to lead righteous lives OR that John is exhorting Jews who lead righteous lives to undergo baptism. In this case the Jews spoken of are initiated into a community…. (See below for the grammatical details of these two possible interpretations.)

A cult defined by righteousness

If we follow the second reading, that the passage is depicting a call for a sectarian group that is identified as “labouring at, practising” righteousness to undergo and “join in” baptism. But if that is the case, what is so distinctive about “righteousness” in this context? Here again scholarly analysis has opened up insights the lay readers like me might easily miss. Righteousness in this context is not a common morality or keeping the rules of the Pharisees or Temple authorities. It is even used in the New Testament to distinguish between the Christian “righteous” sect and the “superficially/hypocritically righteous” Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees. The same is found in the Qumran scrolls. “Righteousness” can denote a sectarian identity. Nir, pp. 50f:

John Kampen examined the term ‘righteousness’ in the Qumran scrolls. He reached the conclusion that unlike its usage in tannaitic sources to denote charity and mercy, at Qumran it denoted sectarian identity and belonging to an elect group having exclusive claim to a righteous way of life. Matthew applies this term in the same sense, in connection to John’s baptism (3.15; 21.32). as well as in the Sermon on the Mount (5.10-11), where the author urges a sectarian way of life distinguished by righteousness. In other words, righteousness marked the sectarian identity of the group and served to pre­serve its boundaries.56 In this passage, as with Matthew and the Qumranites, ‘righteousness’ defines the lifestyle of this elect sectarian group as well as the boundaries separating it from society at large.

56. J. Kampen. “‘Righteousness’ in Matthew and the Legal Texts from Qumran’, in Legal Texts and Legal Issues: Proceedings of the Second Meeting of the International Organization for Qumran Studies. Cambridge 1995. Published in Honour of Joseph Μ. Baumgarten (ed. Μ. Bernstein, F. Garcia Martinez and J. Kampen; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997). pp. 461-87 (479, 481, 484, 486); Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, p. 36: ‘The word δικαιοσύνη does not spill out by accident; it is Matthew’s peculiar way of designating the faith and life of Christians and of Christianity in general (cf. Mt. 5.6. 10; 6.1-4). Meier (A Marginal Jew, II. p. 61) points out the resemblance between John’s description in Josephus and in Lk. 3.10-14. which portrays him as exhorting to acts of social justice. This may be accountable to two Greek-Roman writers, Josephus and Luke, who independently of each other sought to describe an odd Jewish prophet according to the cultural models known in the Greek-Roman world. Similarly, Ernst, Johannes der Täufer, p. 257.

Those footnoted references are not the easiest for lay readers to locate but I have copied extracts from a couple of them. See below for the full passages being cited in footnote 56.

The passage does not simply say that John’s followers were obeying the Jewish traditions, but that they were “practising” a righteousness that set them apart from others and that qualified them to enter the cultic community through baptism, a baptism that would, because they were practicing this righteousness, also ritually sanctify their bodies.

A further pointer to the passage being written from the perspective of a distinctive cult practice, a cult that Nir finds signs of in Qumran, the Fourth Sibylline Oracle and various (anti-Pauline) Jewish-Christian sects, is the language used to express the disciples “coming together”, “joining” in baptism.

βαπτισμω συνιεναι : join in baptism

For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead [επασκουσιν] righteous lives and prac­tice [χρωμένοις] justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism [βαπτισμω συνιεναι]. . . . When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused [ήρθησαν] to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed.

What commentators have discerned here is that the “joining” in baptism means entering into membership of a sectarian group, indicated by the inference that the call is for all of those who practise righteousness to gather together in a (collective) baptism. See details below.

Others, too, joined : Who were the others?

According to Meier in A Marginal Jew, II, pp. 58f

At first glance, the previous concentration of the passage on “the Jews” as the audience of John’s preaching might conjure up the idea that the unspecified “others” are Gentiles. There is no support for such an idea in the Four Gospels, but such a double audience would parallel what Josephus (quite mistakenly) says about Jesus’ audience in Ant. 18.3.3 §63 (kai pollous men Ioudaious, pollous de kai tou Hellenikou epegageto). However, if we are correct that epaskousin [ἐπασκουσιν] and chromenois [χρωμένοις] in §117 express conditions qualifying tois Ioudaiois, there is no need to go outside the immediate context to understand who “the others” at the beginning of §118 are.

So Meier concludes that the “others” were from the general Jewish population coming to see the righteous community respond to John’s call for baptism, but there is also a possibility that “others” might also refer to Gentiles, as in the Testimonium Flavianum (Ant. 18.63): ‘He [sc. Jesus] won over many Jews and many Greeks’, as well as Christians: Mt. 27.42: Lk. 7.19: Jn 4.37: 10.16: 1 Cor. 3.10: 9.27.

For O. Cullmann (‘The Significance of the Qumran Texts for Research into the Beginnings of Christianity‘. JBL 74 (1955). pp. 213-26 (220-21), such Hellenistic Christians formed the earliest nucleus of Christian missionaries who carried the gospel to Samaria and other non-Jewish areas in the Land of Israel.

Nir, p. 50

For baptism to be αποδεκτός (acceptable) . . .

In this passage, John says that ‘if baptism was to be acceptable [αποδεκτήν αύτώ]’ to God.60 ‘they must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body’.

What kind of baptism might ‘be acceptable’ to God?

In biblical usage, this expression relates to the sacrificial system at the temple to designate an offering accepted by God.61 In the New Testament, the compound adjective αποδεκτός, meaning ‘acceptable’, occurs in con­nection with sacrifices only in 1 Peter: ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God’ (2.3-5). . . .

The author of this passage speaks of John’s baptism in terms parallel­ing the atonement sacrifices in the temple, by means of which individu­als ask God’s acceptance of their offering that their sins may be forgiven. Joseph Thomas64 focused on one of the features of Baptist sects (Ebionites, Nazarenes, Elcasaites) that withdrew from the traditional temple and sacri­ficial worship and conceived of baptism as a substitute for sacrifices. To his mind, cessation of sacrifices and the baptismal rite are interrelated: instead of sacrifices in atonement for sins, it is holy baptism that atones for sins.65 The notion of baptism as replacement for the Jewish sacrificial system is distinctly Christian: Jesus is the expiatory sacrifice in place of the temple sacrifices and his death atones for all the sins of the world.66 By baptism, the baptized identify with Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, becoming a sacrifice them­selves, and their sins are forgiven, as expounded in Rom. 6.2-6.

61. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, pp. 166, 203.

64. Thomas. Le mouvement Baptiste, pp. 280-81: J.A.T. Robinson, ‘The Baptism of John and the Qumran Community’, HTR 50 (1957). pp. 175-91 (180).

65. Thomas. Le mouvement Baptiste, pp. 55-56: Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 120. On baptism in place of sacrificing al Qumran, see subsequently.

66. Eph. 5.2: Rom. 12.1.

Nir, pp. 51f

In the account in Josephus we read that for John’s baptism to be “acceptable” (αποδεκτος) it must not be used to grant forgiveness of sins but for the consecration or sanctification of the body, a function of erstwhile temple sacrifices.

Baptism, a central rite

John’s baptism was being preached and proclaimed, a point in common between Josephus and the Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew underscores the central importance of baptism when he has Jesus command his disciples to go into the world and baptize new disciples.

Moreover, other scholars have wondered why Josephus did not explain the term “baptism” here.

What would Greek and Roman readers unfamiliar with Christian sources understand by this term? They were familiar with the verb βάπτω, which means ‘to dip/be dipped’ or ‘to immerse/be submerged’, and with the verb βαπτίζω, which in classical sources denotes ‘to immerse/be submerged under water’.49 How would they understand a designation refer­ring to someone who immerses others with this particular immersion? How could Josephus use this designation without defining it?50

Moreover, this passage uses two terms for John’s immersion: βαππσμός and βάπτισις. which Christian tradition applied as distinctive of Christian baptism. And it is only here that they occur in Josephus, diverging markedly from the terminology he applies to the Jewish ritual immersion for purifica­tion from external physical defilement.51

49. Metaphorically: soaked in wine. See Oepke. ‘βάπτω’, TDNT, I. p. 535.

50. This bewilderment was already raised by Graelz (Geschichte der Juden. III. p. 276 n. 3): and Abrahams (Studies in Pharisaism, p. 33) noted that this designation might be an interpolation. Mason (Josephus and the New Testament, p. 228) attempts to distinguish between ‘Christ’ and ‘called the Christ’, as in the latter case Josephus would not need to explain the title, and this applies to John, ‘called the Baptist’. Some argue (e.g. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, pp. 34, 168) that John’s being called by this name in the Gospels and in Josephus proves it became distinctive of John and the permanent Greek designation, hence its usage by the evangelists as well as Josephus. Indeed, John is called ‘the Baptist’ in the Synoptics, but this epithet is not attached to his name in Acts and in the Fourth Gospel.

51 To describe Jewish immersions, Josephus usually uses the verb λούεσθαι or άπολούεσθαι, as he does for the Essenes and Bannus; see K.H. Rengstorf, A Complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus (Leiden: EJ. Brill. 2002). I. p. 290. But βάπτισις is a term Christian sources apply to the baptism of Christ or Christian baptism; see Athanasius Alexandrinus, Quaestiones in scripturas 41 (M.28.725A); LPGL, p. 284. Origen uses βαπτισμός for John’s baptism, but in many sources this term applies to Christian baptism in general: see Heb 6.2: βαπτισμών διδαχής; Col 2.12: ‘you were buried with him in baptism (έν τω βαπτισμώ), you were also raised with him’; Chrysostom, Hom. in Heb. 9.2 ( 12.95B). This term also applies to the repeated baptismal rites of heretical sects, e.g., Ebionites, Marcionites, etc. See LPGL, p. 288. On the possibility that John’s baptism in Josephus was also a repeated ritual, see subsequently.

Nir, p. 48

It is through discussions of such technical points that Nir argues for a Jewish-Christian provenance of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities of the Jews. When criticisms against the interpolation view point to comparisons with specific New Testament terminology they are missing a key facet of the argument: the interpolation is said to be consistent with certain Jewish Christian practices and thus contrary to the Christian ideas represented by the New Testament.

I still have some questions about Rivka Nir’s presentation but I have tried to set it out in these posts as fully (yet succinctly) as I reasonably can. The less background knowledge we have the easier it is to be persuaded by new readings. The more we learn about the Jewish and Christian worlds in their first and second century contexts the more aware we become of just how little we really know and how vast are the gaps in our knowledge. There is little room for dogmatism, for certainty, for “belief”, in a field of inquiry where even the sources themselves are not always what they seem. That’s true of much ancient history and it is especially true of the history of Christian origins.

So where does John the Baptist fit in history?

Our most abundant historical sources are Christian. In the canonical gospels John the Baptist is the prophetic voice announcing the advent of Jesus. He is depicted variously as a second Elijah, an Isaianic voice in the wilderness, and as the son of a temple priest. Always he represents the Jewish Scriptures prophesying their fulfilment in Jesus Christ. As such, he functions as a theological personification.

If John’s literary function is to personify a theological message we might think that he could still be more than a literary figure. Could he not also have had a historical reality? Yes, of course he could. But a general rule of thumb is to opt for the simplest explanation. If we have a literary explanation for the presence of John the Baptist that explains all that we read about him in the gospels, then there is no need to seek additional explanations. If there is independent evidence for John in history then we are in quite different territory.

The earliest non-Christian source we have is found in Antiquities 18.116/18.5.2 (by Josephus). If this passage was indeed penned by Josephus or one of his scribal assistants then it would be strong evidence — strong because it is independent of the gospels and in a work of “generally reliable” historical narration — that there was a John the Baptist figure in history, however that figure might be interpreted.

The passage would not confirm the gospels’ theological role of John. After all, in Josephus the JtB passage is set some years after the time of Jesus and Jesus is never mentioned in relation to John.

In the eyes of some scholars, those stark differences from the gospels stamp the passage with authenticity. This would mean that Christian authors took John from history and reset him in time to make him a precursor of Jesus. If this is how John entered the gospels then the common notion among scholars of Christian origins and the historical Jesus have no grounds on which to reconstruct a historical scenario in which Jesus joined the Baptist sect only to break away from it. John would then remain as nothing more than a theological personification of the OT pointing to fulfilment in Christ.

But if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the passage in Josephus is from a Jewish-Christian hand, then we are left without any secure foundation for any place of such a figure in history. Another proposal is that the passage is genuinely Josephan but removed from its original context where it spoke of another “John” from the one we associate with Christian tradition. What is certain is that the passage raises questions. It is susceptible to debate. It can never be a bed-rock datum that establishes with certainty any semblance of a John the Baptist figure comparable to the one we read about in the gospels.

.


Detailed explanations of linked points above……

Continue reading “Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 7”


2024-01-04

How Did Scholars View the Gospels During the “First Quest”? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

I received an email a few weeks ago [4 Jan. edit: make that a few months ago], in which the sender asked some questions that deserve an extended response. If and when I have the time, I will add more to this post, but I at least would like to start with a broad outline of my understanding of the history of life-of-Jesus research — both in the ways it was actually conducted and in the ways it is currently “remembered.”

Here’s the text of the email:

Hello, I am a fan of Vridar, and I found a comment that you posted in an article that you wrote. The article is at https://vridar.org/2014/05/14/what-do-they-mean-by-no-quest/.

The comment that you made is “One thing that struck me recently while reading and re-reading material related to the Quest, including books from the 19th and early 20th century, is how often authors will state matter-of-factly that “of course” the gospels aren’t biographies. This whole gospels == biographies debate seems rather new and not well argued. But since believing that they are biographies is useful for their narrow purposes, it has become the consensus position among today’s scholars.”

I have a few questions regarding this comment.

1. What books from the first Quest, say plainly that the gospels aren’t biographies?
2. Do they know of Greco-Roman biographies?
3. Do they list reasons why they aren’t biographies?
4. How is the current understanding not well argued?

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I am eagerly anticipating your response.

Before continuing, I just want to say I’m stunned that nine years have passed since I wrote that post. Where does the time go?

What Biography?

First of all, the general consensus in the 19th century held that the canonical gospels contained biographical material, but were obviously not like modern biographies. Many modern scholars who write on this subject annoyingly imply that this assessment is somehow new. Nobody thought that was the case, and nobody confused popular biography or hagiography or legendary biography with modern biography.

The question was simply: Can we use the materials at hand — namely, the aforementioned biographical material — to create a broad historical outline of Jesus’ life. In some cases, they referred to such a sketch as a “historical biography” or “scientific biography.” However, as we know from reading Albert Schweitzer and William Wrede, the authors of these “lives of Jesus” made two fatal errors: (1) assuming that Mark, as the first written gospel, could be trusted as an unbiased historical account, and (2) psychologizing Jesus far beyond the limits of reasonable conjecture.

What Quest?

Holy Grail Tapestry

Second, the somewhat sensational title of the English translation of Schweitzer’s A History of Life-of-Jesus Research, (Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung), colors the way we perceive the task at hand. You may suspect that I’m overstating the case, but I think this change of focus is crucial. In the original German, the title — and in fact, the entire work — centers on the scholars and their research. Schweitzer had intended the original title, Von Reimarus zu Wrede, as the attention grabber, but in subsequent editions it was dropped in favor of the subtitle, and in the German world is referred to as History of Life-of-Jesus Research (without the indefinite article).

In English, the very word “quest” evokes a kind of mystic medieval landscape — a verdant, rolling countryside populated with devout knights-errant finding venerated objects, killing mythical beasts, fighting rivals, and saving damsels in distress. In this case, the aim of our quest is not piety or glory, but instead the Jesus of history. Schweitzer’s survey of scholarly research has thus become a romantic historical mission. Continue reading “How Did Scholars View the Gospels During the “First Quest”? (Part 1)”


2023-12-20

Simon of Cyrene: once more on the ambiguity of the crucified one in the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

From Wikimedia Commons

Here is an extract from the latest publication on the question of Simon of Cyrene, the one compelled to carry the cross of Jesus according to the synoptic gospel narrative. This post follows the train of

Reading the Gospel of Mark Alone — Imagine No Other Gospels (22-10-2023)

and

A “Playful” Ambiguity in the Gospel of Mark (14-07-2023)

It is from an article by Andreas Bedenbener in the latest issue of Texte und Kontexte:

But as far as Simon is concerned, the text’s [that is, the Gospel of Mark] great interest in him suddenly disappears the moment he takes up the cross. We don’t hear how he carries it to Golgotha, nor how he puts it down, nor what became of him afterwards. The text continues as follows:

22 They take him to the place Golgotha, which is translated: place of the skull.
23 They wanted to give him wine flavored with myrrh; but he did not take it.
24 And they crucified him
and divide his garments,
by casting lots over them to see who could take what.

Since the last text figure mentioned before arriving at Golgotha was Simon, it would be linguistically obvious to refer all of this, as well as what is said in the following verses, to him; The name “Jesus” only appears again in v. 34. This is either told extremely carelessly – which would be astonishing given the level of detail with which the text previously addressed Simon – or else the Gospel of Mark aims to to blur the line between Jesus and Simon for a while.The ambivalence of the phrase “his cross” fits with this second possibility: the cross that Simon takes up could be both the cross of Jesus and his own cross. If you understand the scene as a representation of reality, it is of course an either – or, but if you look at it from a literary perspective, the cross belongs as much to Jesus as it does to Simon.

(Translation, pp 15f)

  • Bedenbender, Andreas. “Kein Helfer, sondern selbst ein Opfer. Die Rolle Simons Aus Kyrene in Mk 15,21 und im Gefüge des Markusevangeliums.” Texte & Kontexte, no. 169/170 (2022): 12-30.